Gubernatorial candidates detail openness philosophies

Gubernatorial candidates detail openness philosophies
Candidates for governor and the attorney general's office said there is work to be done before South Dakota has an ideal open government climate.

The South Dakota Newspaper Association's First Amendment Committee met with the candidates for a question and answer session Sept. 2.

Ron Volesky, the Democrat candidate for attorney general said the amount of government information shared with the public would earn the state a D.

The former legislator served on the Huron City Commission where he was the subject of a closed session after speaking out unfavorably on a proposed convention center.

"The amount of business done in executive session behind closed doors is just literally inexcusable," Volesky said. "I was so frustrated as a city commissioner because I felt citizens in this community were not as well informed as they should have been on a number of topics."

During his first term Republican Attorney General Larry Long created a task force to study government openness and also sponsored successful legislation creating the South Dakota Open Meetings Commission. That commission deals with open meeting violations forwarded by local state's attorneys. If members find a violation they issue a reprimand. Long's office also is working to catalog state records to determine which are open. He must give a formal report to the Legislature by next summer. He said some legislation may be needed to update the open records law, which was drafted when many government records were copied out by hand.

"We've moved the bar forward – perhaps not very much," Long said. "I'm confident we're going to get it moved farther forward than that."

Volesky said closed sessions of government meetings should be taped and made available to judges if the session is challenged. Local governments can meet in a closed session to discuss specific issues like personnel, pending lawsuits, and economic development. However, they must vote to go into executive session and then deal only with that issue while out of the public eye.

"We need to open government up more in South Dakota," Volesky said.

He would propose legislation stating that government information is open unless a statute says it isn't.

"Change is so hard," he said. "We have a very status quo attitude in South Dakota. It would be a difficult challenge but I think it's one that needs to be made."

Long said he sees the open meetings commission eventually identifying specific changes that need to be made in the open meetings law.

Steve Willis, the Constitution Party candidate for governor, said government openness is a way to keep officials accountable. He thinks records should be open unless state security is threatened. He gave the state a C for openness. Elected officials need to be principled and responsible in government, Willis said.

"If we don't have principle and responsibility we don't have accountability," he said.

For instance, if, as governor, he were using the state plane he would make records of the flights known and he would not take that plane when traveling on vacation.

"That's what commercial airlines are for, frankly," he said. "It goes down to accountability."

He also said he would identify what state employees were doing to insure citizens' safety from terrorist attacks without what areas in the state were targets. The public also needs more information about police investigations without jeopardizing those efforts.

"The public needs to know what's going on," he said.

Democratic candidate for governor Jack Billion said he thinks South Dakota ranks about 46th in the nation in terms of open information.

"Whenever you have a one-party system in a state that functions for a great deal of time as a one-party system they perhaps lose the drive to disseminate information and really that responsibility because they don't have any challenges."

Ready access to administrative reports on things like the governor's hunt, donations for a new governor's mansion or a campaign fund run by the governor aren't as forthcoming as they should be, he said.

"It doesn't seem information is disseminated about them to the people," he said.

Government as a whole needs to be more open, he said.

"I think you need to open government up quite a bit," Billion said. "I think it should be open unless there's a specific reason to close it. If you close something that's fine – but ? then make the decision then come and announce what they've done."

Gov. Mike Rounds has attempted to involve people more closely in government with his Capitol for a Day programs and holding town hall meetings on education. He said people meet state employees and later ask for them specifically if they have a concern.

"We've tried to do our best to get out and visit people in our state – take the time to talk to people one on one," he said. "In that respect I think people have had more access to me personally as any time in recent history."

He said he would continue to work with the media on ideas its members might have on making information more fluid throughout state government.

There always will be friction between how many records are kept and how many are open.

"Most certainly the door is open to discuss those issues," he said.

Tom Gerber, the Libertarian Party candidate for governor gave South Dakota an F in openness. If elected he said he wouldn't hire any spokesman but would personally make announcements and answer questions.

"I like to hear things straight from the horse's mouth," he said.

He said records should be open unless private people would be harmed by the release. But the information could still be given out with names excluded – like in the case of crimes committed by juveniles. Also if people are pardoned, he said their pardon should be public but not the crime.

"In a way that's punishing him again," he said.

If elected he would get rid of the open meetings commission and make sure criminal penalties in law that punish open meeting violations were enforced. Those penalties currently exist but have never been handed out, Gerber said.

"That's what they try to do when they close government," he said. "They try to close off a little bit here, a little bit there."

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